The small section of JFK Drive in Golden Gate Park that’s been closed to vehicular traffic has been reborn as “JFK Promenade”—and ahead of November’s dueling ballot propositions over its future, one organization hopes to draw as many people out to play on it as possible.
Illuminate, the nonprofit that’s delivered large-scale public art projects such as the Bay Lights, Pride Month’s lit-up Pink Triangle on Twin Peaks and that miles-long rainbow projection down Market Street, famously installed three Doggie Diner heads in the roadway a few weeks ago. Since then, they’ve added murals, a steel sculpture by a renowned local artist, 100 yellow chairs, a beer garden and giant, sunken letter blocks that spell out “LOVE.” It’s called the Golden Mile, and through next February, it’s meant to show off what JFK Promenade can be.
San Francisco’s byzantine bureaucracy and sclerotic permit process have been known to lay even the mightiest would-be developers low. But Ben Davis, the soft spoken creative force behind Illuminate’s projects, conjures quick approvals out of department after department.
“We have a permit that’s for almost six months, and we’ve been working on it for 10 weeks now,” he told The Standard on an unpleasantly cold Thursday afternoon. “It’s not that the system is broken. It’s that the operating system needs adjustments—and if San Francisco could just figure out who we say yes to and who we say no to, and just swap those, we would be a better city.”
Newscaster-turned-sculptor Dana King is already well-known for Monumental Reckoning, the collection of 350 figures (or “Ancestors”) that encircle the nearby Music Concourse’s monument to Francis Scott Key. She was working with the same metal worker to fabricate a piece called Rooted (In)Justice, a life-size female figure, fist raised, that stands on a tree stump at the crest of JFK Drive’s hill. By late Thursday, she was in place.
“Space is power,” King said. “And this park is powerful, and it should be for everybody, all the time. She’s corten steel, so she’ll rust—which is what I hope happens to injustice.”
Fifty yards away, skaters and cyclists slalomed around a couple highway cones as artist Josué Rojas and his assistant Anthony Jimenez slathered a second coat of dark green paint on the asphalt for a floral-labyrinth mural they were working on.
“The corners are in various stages of bloom,” Rojas said. “It’s very aura-y. People stop to do a walking meditation.”
The specific shade of paint is “chrome green,” he said. And it acquires a beautiful patina, slightly reddish and almost iridescent. It’s one of five or six large-scale pieces covering the roadbed, along with other sculptures like a humpback whale tail by Reuben Rude.
Murals are lovely, but Golden Mile’s real purpose is to get people outdoors through interactivity and activations. The “LOVE” blocks, which only weeks ago could be found on the Black Rock Desert, are one of Davis’ favorites components.
“Making their way from the Playa of Burning Man to the green grass of the park in less than a month is an unprecedented accelerant of people finding a way to say yes,” he said. “Even on a cold day like today, you’ll see five kids climbing on it. It’s part placemaking, part playground, part public art, and it’s just pure goodness.”
Two pianos, which volunteers cover and uncover daily, invite you to play “Chopsticks” or the “Goldberg Variations.” Buskers—paid buskers!—play lightly amplified music 24 hours a week. A beer garden opened on Saturday at the 14th Ave. East Meadow, opposite the whale tail. Circus Bella gave two performances there over the weekend. All of this came together without any corporate sponsorship.
Those 100 yellow chairs, 50 of which are Adirondack-style and 50 the more ADA-friendly fanback-style, are there for people to move around as they like. They’re “heliotropic,” Davis notes, as people reposition themselves for exposure to sunlight. Golden Mile’s simplicity shouldn’t feel so revolutionary, he adds, but for decades the urban environment has been balkanized against skateboarders and others, so that its features are now made of cement and don’t move. This project looks to shift that dynamic.
“I spent the morning with Dana King tending to the ancestors,” Davis said, “and I’m spending this afternoon tending to our heirs, trying to leave a legacy of a better place.”
Through Feb. 28, 2023
Peter-Astrid Kane can be reached at [email protected]